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Medieval Comics: Depicting the Middle Ages in European Graphic Novels

15 Apr

by Iain A. MacInnes

Medieval history is very much in vogue at the present time. Driven by representations of the period in various forms of popular culture, there appears to be a great appetite for all things medieval. From television (Vikings, The Name of the Rose, Knightfall) to film (The Green Knight, The King, Outlaw King) to video games (A Plague Tale: Innocence, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, Medieval Dynasty), representations of the medieval world are hard to avoid.[1] And that is before we get to the more medieval-influenced forms of media that perhaps drive interest in the medieval even more than apparently “real” representations of the past. Where Game of Thrones led the way, The Witcher is now appealing to a mass global audience.[2] The forthcoming Lord of the Rings television series, films like Nimona and games like Godfall will similarly bring different varieties of medieval aesthetics to modern audiences across the globe.[3]

Another medium, perhaps more niche than the above, is that of the graphic novel. Comics set in both the medieval past and medieval-inspired worlds have gained increasing popularity in recent years, and it can be argued that these are as important as the above examples in terms of influencing modern perceptions and understanding of our medieval past. One potential reason why this is not as well-recognised is that many medieval comics are not available in English. While there do exist prominent examples of English-language medieval comics by noted authors and special releases timed to coincide with historical anniversaries (such as Crécy, Templar, Nevsky: A Hero of the People, On Dangerous Ground: Bannockburn 1314 and Agincourt 1415: A Graphic Novel), this output pales into relative insignificance when compared with that produced in continental Europe.[4] The remainder of this post will therefore consider the range of medieval comics produced for the European market, with a focus on Spain and particularly France. While some broader context for these works is provided, the main focus will be on comics of the last decade to allow consideration of increased interest in the medieval period as reflected in the comic medium.

One interesting example is the output of Spanish comic writers and artists in Spanish-language publications. Spain’s interest in medieval-themed comics can be traced at least as far back as the 1940s with series such as El guerrero del antifaz (‘The Masked Warrior’) by Manuel Gago García, which ran from 1944 to 1966.[5] In the 1950s, a new series appeared that, too, had tremendous and long-lasting appeal, El capitán Trueno (‘Captain Thunder’). Written by Víctor Mora and illustrated by Miguel Ambrosio Zaragoza, it ran from 1956 to 1968. The eponymous hero was a Christian crusading knight who travelled the world righting wrongs.[6] The long-term success of such comic books may have had a lasting impact on the Spanish consciousness as medieval comics continued to be popular. Their style, however, changed, moving away from fantastical sword-and-sandal epics and fictional stories of the past, and instead looking to Spain’s medieval history and literature for inspiration.

One author to look to Spain’s past for inspiration was Antonio Hernández Palacios. His one-shot Roncevalles reconstructs a version of the legendary battle that took place in the late eighth/early ninth century that influenced the creation of the medieval literary epic The Song of Roland.[7] And his series El Cid chronicles the history and legend of the Spanish warrior Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar who lived during the eleventh century and fought both against and alongside Christian and Muslim forces in this early period. Published between 1971 and 1984, El Cid was planned as a 20-25 volume work, but Hernández Palacios died before completing volume 5.[8]

More recent works explore different facets of Spain’s history. Its late medieval experience of global imperialism is represented in works such as El otro mar [The Other Sea] and En busca del Unicornio [In Search of the Unicorn].[9] The reconquista—the Spanish reconquest of the southern part of Iberia from Muslim dominance from the eleventh to the fifteenth century—is also prominently represented. Building on Hernández Palacios’s examination of the early reconquest, these works include Mallorca 1229: Jaume el Conqueridor [Mallorca 1229: James the Conqueror], Historias de guanches [Stories of the Guanches] and 1212 Las Navas de Tolosa, which recount in turn the conquest of Mallorca, the conquest of Tenerife and the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, one of the larger Christian victories of the period.[10]

Several of these examples demonstrate that military history is often to the fore in these comics, the visual medium affording a visceral depiction of medieval events that is impossible in a purely literary form. This is perhaps best represented in the example of bandes dessinées. The French have a huge comics industry and it is perhaps unsurprising that the nation’s history captures the imagination of comic writers and illustrators. But it is perhaps something more than that. There appears to be a drive in France currently to engage the public more directly with French history by using popular culture and historians are heavily involved in working with authors and artists to make this as academically influenced as possible. This is perhaps best represented in the Histoire dessinée de la France [The Comic History of France], a multi-volume series that aims to re-examine French history and present it to a popular readership in comic form. Starting with the Gauls, it runs currently up to the period of the Hundred Years War, with more volumes planned to chart the nation’s history through the early modern period and into the modern age.[11]

Despite the country’s rich history, it is the medieval period that appears to hold a particular fascination. To list a few examples, the series Ils ont fait l’Histoire [They Made History] includes volumes on Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Philip II, Philip IV, Louis IX and Saladin.[12] Les Reines de sang [The Queens of Blood] includes series on Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joan of Navarre, Constance of Antioch and Isabella of France.[13] And the Champs d’honneur [Fields of Honour] series focused on the battle of Castillon (1453) in one of its issues.[14] Other works are completely given over to tales set amidst the major medieval events of the period. Je suis Cathare [I am a Cathar], Le Dernier Cathare [The Last Cathar] and Cathares are three separate series that focus on the events, myths and legends surrounding the Cathar heretics of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the associated Albigensian Crusade.[15] Les Aigles décapités [The Beheaded Eagles] is an epic tale following several characters set in the thirteenth century.[16] Le Trône d’argile [The Clay Throne] is a detailed retelling of the second half of the Hundred Years War, focusing in particular on the lives of Charles VII and Joan of Arc.[17] And even more recent series recount the story of famous literary figure François Villon (Je, François Villon) [I, François Villon], the later medieval Valois monarchy (Valois) and the Norman conquest of Sicily (Ira Dei) [The Wrath of God].[18]

French examples also reflect the diversity apparent within the comics medium while still retaining a focus on the medieval period. Two examples in particular stand out. Firstly, there is the series Hawkwood : Mercenaire de la guerre de Cent Ans [Hawkwood: Mercenary of the Hundred Years War].[19] This is the story of Sir John Hawkwood, a man who rose from obscurity as a soldier in the Hundred Years War to command a mercenary company and grow wealthy from his military service. Originally launched in Japan as a manga authored by Tommy Ohtsuka, it was translated into French for the French market whilst retaining its manga depiction of the events that unfold. It is a fascinating blend of cultural influences, taking a historical medieval European story and transposing into a stylised Japanese medium.[20]

The second example involves medieval-themed issues of the regular French series Jour J [D Day].[21] The idea behind Jour J is that of a uchronia: the authors take a historical moment, change it and imagine the world that occurred as a result while folding a fictional narrative into that speculative history. Other issues of the series deal with themes such as World War II, the moon landings and 9/11. But increasingly the authors are utilizing medieval history as the setting for their narratives. Examples include: the two-part L’Empire des steppes [The Empire of the Steppes] and Stupor mundi [The Wonder of the World] (based on the Mongol invasions of Europe); La Ballade des pendus [The Ballad of the Hanged Men] and Le Dieu vert [The Green God] (depicting a world where Europe was decimated by the Black Death and came under the influence of the African Malian Empire); Les Ombres de Constantinople [The Shadows of Constantinople] and Tout l’or de Constantinople [All the Gold of Constantinople] (where the siege of Constantinople by Ottoman forces was defeated by Vlad the Impaler); and the standalone Notre-Dame de Londres [Our Lady of London] (where King John’s England was conquered by the French).[22] Though not strictly speaking historical, these works do still provide interesting depictions of the medieval world based on some element of medieval reality. Moreover, they highlight elements that are sometimes lost on modern audiences, such as the fact that the medieval world existed beyond the borders of medieval Europe and the fact that many people travelled huge distances to far-flung lands during this period.

Ultimately there is a huge range of medieval comics out there. The challenge for readers (and academics) is keeping up with the productivity of comic authors. And, for English-language readership, some of these works are increasingly being translated (for example, Ira Dei is now available in English on Comixology).[23] Medieval comics are, then, a particularly interesting tool for analysing modern depictions of the medieval world. And recognition of their influence alongside better-known film and television sources is required if we are to fully analyse modern interest in all things medieval.

 

Iain A. MacInnes is a senior lecturer in Scottish History at the University of the Highlands and Islands. His primary research relates to the period of the Second Scottish War of Independence (1332-1357), focusing on the themes of military history, conduct and chivalry in warfare. This focus has allowed him to develop related interests in studying treason and punishment in medieval Scotland, battlefield injury and the treatment of such, and the urban experience of conflict. He has also developed an interest in the depiction of medieval events, and medieval warfare in particular, in modern popular culture. Recent published work has included consideration of chivalry in Game of Thrones, as well as comic depictions of war and its conduct in English, French and Spanish works.

 

Suggested Further Reading

MacInnes, Iain A. ““A Clash of Arms to Be Eternally Remembered”: The Depiction of War And Chivalry During the Hundred Years War in Le Trône d’argile and Crécy.” Cultures of War in Graphic Novels, edited by T. Prorokova and N. Tal, Rutgers University Press, 2018, pp. 23-40.

—. ““For He Bestirred Himself to Protect the Land from the Moors”: Depicting the Medieval Reconquista in Modern Spanish Graphic Novels.” European Comic Art, vol. 11, no. 1, 2018, pp. 48-65.

—. ““I Can Piss on Calais from Dover”: Adaptation and Medievalism in Graphic Novel Depictions of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453).” From Medievalism to Early-Modernism: Adapting the English Past, edited by Marina Gerzic and Aidan Norrie, Routledge, 2018, pp. 154-170.

—. “The World As It Was/Could Have Been? The Depiction And (Re)Interpretation of Medieval History in Jour J.” Drawing the Past: Comics and the Historical Imagination, edited by Michael Goodrum, David Hall and Philip Smith, vol. 1, Mississippi University Press, 2020, forthcoming.

Vadillo, Monica A. W. “Comic Books Featuring the Middle Ages.” Itinéraires, no. 3, 2010, pp. 153-163.

Works Cited

Alary, Viviane. “The Spanish Tebeo.” European Comic Art, vol. 2, no. 2, 2009, pp. 253-276.

Battiato, Giacomo, creator. The Name of the Rose. 11 Marzo Film, Palomar, Rai Fiction and Tele München Group (TMG), 2019 – .

Benioff, David, and D. B. Weiss, creators. Game of Thrones. HBO, 2011-2019.

Blanchard, Fred, et al. Jour J. Delcourt, 2010 – . 39 vols.

Brugeas, Vincent, and Ronan Toulhoat. Ira Dei. Dargaud, 2018-2019. 4 vols.

El capitán Trueno: Tras los pasos del héroe. Patxi Lanceros, Juan Calatrava and José Manuel Sánchez Ron, editors. Círculo de Bellas Artes, 2016.

Cano de la Iglesia, Jesús. 1212 Las Navas de Tolosa. Ponent Mon, 2016.

Critone, Luigi. Je, François Villon. Delcourt, 2011-2014. 3 vols.

Delalande, Arnaud, and Éric Lambert. Le dernier Cathare. Glénat, 2010-2016. 4 vols.

Duval, Fred, et al. Jour J, L’Empire des steppes, vol. 22. Delcourt, 2015.

—. Jour J, Stupor Mundi, vol. 24. Delcourt, 2016.

—. Jour J, Notre-Dame de Londres, vol. 25. Delcourt, 2016.

—. Jour J, La Ballade des pendus, vol. 26. Delcourt, 2016.

—. Jour J, Les Ombres de Constantinople, vol. 27. Delcourt, 2017.

—. Jour J, Le Dieu vert, vol. 34. Delcourt, 2018.

—. Jour J, Tout l’or de Constantinople, vol. 36. Delcourt, 2019.

Ellis, Warren, and Raulo Cáceres. Crécy. Avatar Press, 2010.

Falba, Bruno, and Fabio Bono. Cathares. Glénat, 2011-2012. 3 vols.

García i Quera, Oriol. Mallorca 1229: Jaume el Conqueridor. Casals N, 2010.

Gill, Will, et al. Agincourt 1415. Matador, 2015.

Gloris, Thierry, and Jaime Calderón. Valois. Delcourt, 2017-2019. 2 vols.

The Green Knight. Directed by David Lowery, performances by Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander and Joel Edgerton, A24 and Showtime Networks, 2020.

Handfield, Don, and Richard Rayner, creators. Knightfall. A+E Studios, Midnight Radio, Stillking Films and The Combine, 2017 – .

Hernández Palacios, Antonio. Roncesvalles. Ikusager, 1980.

—. El Cid integral. Ponent Mon, 2015.

Hirst, Michael, creator. Vikings. World 2000 Entertainment, Take 5 Productions, Shaw Media and MGM Television, 2013 – .

“Ira Dei.” Comixology, http://www.comixology.co.uk/Ira-Dei/comics-series/121371. Accessed 27 Mar. 2020.

Jarry, Nicolas, and France Richemond. Le Trône d’argile. Delcourt, 2006-2015. 6 vols.

The King. Directed by David Michôd, performances by Timothée Chalemet and Joel Edgerton, Netflix, 2019.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance. Directed by Daniel Vávra, Warhorse Studios, Deep Silver, 2018.

Kit, Borys. “Fox Animation Nabs ‘Nimona’ Adaptation with ‘Feast’ Director (Exclusive).” The Hollywood Reporter, 11 June 2015, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/fox-animation-nabs-nimona-adaptation-801920. Accessed 27 Mar. 2020.

Kraehn, Jean-Charles, and Patrice Pellerin. Les Aigles décapités. Glénat, 1986-2019. 29 vols.

Kuji, Mitsuhisa. Wolfsmund. Enterbrain, 2013-2016. 8 vols.

MacDonald, Lindsay. “Amazon’s Lord of the Rings Series: Cast, Release Date, Characters, and More.” TV Guide, 16 March 2020, http://www.tvguide.com/news/lord-of-the-rings-amazon-series-cast-release-date-characters/. Accessed 27 Mar. 2020.

Makyo, and Alessandro Calore. Je suis Cathare. Delcourt, 2007-2017. 7 vols.

McCool, Ben, and Mario Guevara. Nevsky: A Hero of the People. IDW, 2012.

Mechner, Jordan, et al. Templar. First Second, 2013.

Miralles, Ana, and Emilio Ruiz. En busca del Unicornio. Astiberri, 2019.

Mora, Juan Carlos. Historias de guanches. Idea, 2013-2014. 4 vols.

Medieval Dynasty. Directed by Toplitz Prod, Toplitz Productions, 2020.

Ohtsuka, Tommy. Hawkwood : Mercenaire de la guerre de Cent Ans. Doki-Doki, 2016-2017. 8 vols.

Oloman, Jordan. “Godfall: Everything We Know About the PS5 Title.” Gamesradar, 10 February 2020, www.gamesradar.com/uk/godfall-guide/. Accessed 27 Mar. 2020.

Outlaw King. Directed by David Mackenzie, performances by Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Florence Pugh, Netflix, 2018.

A Plague Tale: Innocence. Directed by Kevin Choteau and David Dedeine, Asobo Studio, Focus Home Interactive, 2019.

Schmidt, Lauren, creator. The Witcher. Netflix, 2019 – .

A Song of Roland. Edited and translated by Glyn Burgess. Penguin, 2003.

Uriondo, Carlos. Introduction. “El Cid de Antonio Hernández Palacios.” El Cid integral, by Antonio Hernández Palacios, Ponent Mon, 2015, pp. 3-8.

Various authors. Les Reines de sang. Delcourt, 2012 – . 10 vols.

—. Ils ont fait l’Histoire. Glénat, 2014 – . 35 vols.

—. Champs d’honneur. Delcourt, 2016-2017. 5 vols.

Venayre, Sylvain. Histoire dessinée de la France. La Découverte, 2017 – . 10 vols.

Watson, Fiona, and Conor Boyle. On Dangerous Ground: Bannockburn 1314. National Trust for Scotland, 2014.

Yukimura, Makoto. Vinland Saga. Kodansha, 2013-2018. 11 vols.

Zapico, Alfonso. El otro mar. Astiberri, 2013.

 

[1] Hirst, Michael, creator. Vikings. World 2000 Entertainment, Take 5 Productions, Shaw Media and MGM Television, 2013 –; Battiato, Giacomo, creator. The Name of the Rose. 11 Marzo Film, Palomar, Rai Fiction and Tele München Group (TMG), 2019 –; Handfield, Don, and Richard Rayner, creators. Knightfall. A+E Studios, Midnight Radio, Stillking Films and The Combine, 2017 –; The Green Knight. Directed by David Lowery, performances by Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander and Joel Edgerton, A24 and Showtime Networks, 2020; The King. Directed by David Michôd, performances by Timothée Chalemet and Joel Edgerton, Netflix, 2019; Outlaw King. Directed by David Mackenzie, performances by Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Florence Pugh, Netflix, 2018); A Plague Tale: Innocence. Directed by Kevin Choteau and David Dedeine, Asobo Studio, Focus Home Interactive, 2019; Kingdom Come: Deliverance. Directed by Daniel Vávra, Warhorse Studios, Deep Silver, 2018; Medieval Dynasty. Directed by Toplitz Prod, Toplitz Productions, 2020.

[2] Benioff, David, and D. B. Weiss, creators. Game of Thrones. HBO, 2011-2019; Schmidt, Lauren, creator. The Witcher. Netflix, 2019 – .

[3] MacDonald, Lindsay. “Amazon’s Lord of the Rings Series: Cast, Release Date, Characters, and More.” TV Guide, 16 March 2020, http://www.tvguide.com/news/lord-of-the-rings-amazon-series-cast-release-date-characters/. Accessed 27 Mar. 2020; Kit, Borys. “Fox Animation Nabs ‘Nimona’ Adaptation with ‘Feast’ Director (Exclusive).” The Hollywood Reporter, 11 June 2015, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/fox-animation-nabs-nimona-adaptation-801920. Accessed 27 Mar. 2020.; Oloman, Jordan. “Godfall: Everything We Know About the PS5 Title.” Gamesradar, 10 February 2020, http://www.gamesradar.com/uk/godfall-guide/. Accessed 27 Mar. 2020.

[4] Ellis, Warren, and Raulo Cáceres. Crécy. Avatar Press, 2010; Mechner, Jordan, et al. Templar. First Second, 2013; McCool, Ben, and Mario Guevara. Nevsky: A Hero of the People. IDW, 2012; Watson, Fiona, and Conor Boyle. On Dangerous Ground: Bannockburn 1314. National Trust for Scotland, 2014; Gill, Will, et al. Agincourt 1415. Matador, 2015.

[5] See Alary, Viviane. “The Spanish Tebeo.” European Comic Art, vol. 2, no. 2, 2009, pp. 267-269.

[6] See El capitán Trueno: tras los pasos del héroe [Captain Thunder: In the Steps of the Hero]. Patxi Lanceros, Juan Calatrava and José Manuel Sánchez Ron, editors. Círculo de Bellas Artes, 2016.

[7] Hernández Palacios, Antonio. Roncesvalles. Ikusager, 1980; A Song of Roland. Edited and translated by Glyn Burgess. Penguin, 2003.

[8] Hernández Palacios, Antonio. El Cid integral. Ponent Mon, 2015; Uriondo, Carlos. Introduction. “El Cid de Antonio Hernández Palacios.” El Cid integral, by Antonio Hernández Palacios, Ponent Mon, 2015, pp. 3-8.

[9] Zapico, Alfonso. El otro mar. Astiberri, 2013; Miralles, Ana and Emilio Ruiz. En busca del Unicornio. Astiberri, 2019.

[10] García i Quera, Oriol. Mallorca 1229: Jaume el Conqueridor. Casals N, 2010; Mora, Juan Carlos. Historias de guanches. Idea, 2013-2014. 4 vols; Cano de la Iglesia, Jesús. 1212 Las Navas de Tolosa. Ponent Mon, 2016.

[11] Venayre, Sylvain. Histoire dessinée de la France. La Découverte, 2017 – . 10 vols.

[12] Various authors. Ils ont fait l’Histoire. Glénat, 2014 – . 35 vols.

[13] Various authors. Les Reines de sang. Delcourt, 2012 – . 10 vols.

[14] Various authors. Champs d’honneur. Delcourt, 2016-2017. 5 vols.

[15] Makyo, and Alessandro Calore. Je suis Cathare. Delcourt, 2007-2017. 7 vols; Delalande, Arnaud, and Éric Lambert. Le Dernier Cathare. Glénat, 2010-2016. 4 vols; Falba, Bruno and Fabio Bono. Cathares. Glénat, 2011-2012. 3 vols.

[16] Kraehn, Jean-Charles, and Patrice Pellerin. Les Aigles décapités. Glénat, 1986-2019. 29 vols.

[17] Jarry, Nicolas, and France Richemond. Le Trône d’argile. Delcourt, 2006-2015. 6 vols.

[18] Critone, Luigi. Je, François Villon. Delcourt, 2011-2014. 3 vols; Gloris, Thierry, and Jaime Calderón. Valois. Delcourt, 2017-2019. 2 vols; Brugeas, Vincent, and Ronan Toulhoat. Ira Dei. Dargaud, 2018-2019. 4 vols.

[19] Ohtsuka, Tommy. Hawkwood : Mercenaire de la guerre de Cent Ans. Doki-Doki, 2016-2017. 8 vols.

[20] Other examples of medieval European-Japanese manga crossovers also exist in English, including: Mitsuhisa Kuji. Wolfsmund. Enterbrain, 2013-2016. 8 vols; and Makoto Yukimura. Vinland Saga. Kodansha, 2013-2018. 11 vols.

[21] Blanchard, Fred, et al. Jour J. Delcourt, 2010 – . 39 vols.

[22] Duval, Fred, et al. Jour J, L’Empire des steppes, vol. 22. Delcourt, 2015; Jour J, Stupor Mundi, vol. 24. Delcourt, 2016; Jour J, La Ballade des pendus, vol. 26. Delcourt, 2016; Jour J, Le Dieu vert, vol. 34. Delcourt, 2018; Jour J, Les Ombres de Constantinople, vol. 27. Delcourt, 2017; Jour J, Tout l’or de Constantinople, vol. 36. Delcourt, 2019; Jour J, Notre-Dame de Londres, vol. 25. Delcourt, 2016.

[23] “Ira Dei.” Comixology, http://www.comixology.co.uk/Ira-Dei/comics-series/121371. Accessed 27 Mar. 2020.

 
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Posted by on 2020/04/15 in Guest Writers

 

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